Slay the Sacred Cow

“Creative thinking may simply mean the realization that there is no particular virtue in doing things the way they have always been done.” —Rudolph Flesch

Look at the picture below. What is it?


In his book, A Whack on the Side of the Head, Roger von Oech tells the story of a high school English teacher who put the same figure on the board and asked her class the same question, what is it? Her students responded as you would expect, with logical teenagey answers. “A dot on the board.” She then told her class that she asked the same question to kindergartners and got no fewer than 50 distinctly different answers ranging from a squashed bug to an owl’s eye.  What did you say? Did your answer sound adulty and teachery? Probably so. See, the same way the high school students learned how to look for, and accept, only one “right” answer we have also. I have no proof (although I’m sure there is some) but as we get older, we become conditioned to conform to whatever status quo is. In fact, had we responded with any of the same answers as the kindergartners, and we were in a room full of adults ,we’d have probably been laughed at or ignored. Our answers would have been dismissed as “silly” and not worthy of discussion. Of course most of us wouldn’t have responded this way at all for fear of embarrassment and we’d been content to carry on with business as usual. The problem is that when it comes to educating our students, “business as usual” is no longer acceptable.

There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer.
Simply what you can prove and what you can’t.

If you recall in my previous post, the 10th most important skill for students to have by 2020 is something called Cognitive Flexibility, the ability to see a situation from multiple perspectives. When I started teaching in the early 2000s, and indeed through all of my K-12 education, this was a cardinal sin. There was only one right answer to a question and it came from only one of two places: 1) the author or 2) the teacher. It certainly wasn’t you. It was in the pedagogical environment that I tried something completely radical and sacrilegious.  I killed a sacred cow.

If you’ve never heard this phrase, you’re probably not alone. In it’s simplest definition, killing a sacred cow is the opposite of operating in the “it’s always been done this way” mindset. One of my favorite lines from the Black Panther, the blockbuster from the Marvel Comic Universe (MCU),  is when Shuri, the 16 year old techno super genius tells her brother “Just because something works doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.” Killing the sacred cow means finding a more excellent way to improve upon what has already been done.


During that year, I was working with my 9th Graders on analyzing poetry using Langston Hughes’ brief yet powerful poem “Song for a Dark Girl.” I didn’t want them to just Google the “right answer” so I forbade them from looking up any information about the poem. “I don’t want the right answer according to whomever. I want to know what YOUR right answer is.” They looked completely lost. “Huh?” I smiled and said the following: ” Listen. There are only two rules here: #1: There is no right or wrong answer. Simply what you can prove and what you can’t. And #2: Don’t look for THE right answer. Look for A right answer.” More blank stares followed by the most important question to a 9th Grade student, “What if I’m wrong?!”  My response, “How are you going to be wrong when you’re coming up with the answer? Your job isn’t to BE right. Your job is to convince us that your answer is one among a bunch of right answers.” It took me two class periods to get them to come out of their shells and take a risk but I had to model what I needed them to do. I was so excited when my students began to not only come up with their own answers but provide evidence to support them that I didn’t notice one of the most revered English teachers in the building had walked into my room and was sitting looking positively mortified in the back of my classroom.

Don’t look for THE right answer. Look for A right answer.

After class, she spent 20 minutes fussing me down about how I had disrespected Langston Hughes’ poem and needed to go back and teach the students it’s CORRECT interpretation. Again, I was a 2nd or 3rd year teacher and this was the Yoda of our English department demanding that I resurrect the “sacred cow” I had just slaughtered.  I couldn’t say “yes” so I said nothing at all. Instead…I kept doing what I was doing. (GULP!) And a funny thing happened. My students writing got better. Their thinking got better. Their test scores got better. And, most importantly, their confidence increased. They needed to be given permission to try without consequence which meant I had give myself permission to try something different.

Interrupting your pedagogy is more about getting over fear than it is about being creative so don’t worry about the creativity piece. Get over the fear of trying something new first. Creativity will come when fear goes away.


Point to Ponder

Sometimes what we need to get over our fear is to come up with baby steps. Think of  ONE “baby step” you can try this week and try it! 

NOTE: I can already hear many of my math and science teachers saying “This won’t work for us. There is almost always only one right answer.” True. There will almost always be only one final solution. BUT…what if you gave students the option to figure out HOW to get to it without telling them? Or, give them a lesson that requires them to do more than come up with a final solution? Remember some of the most creative people in history were mathematicians, scientists, engineers, etc. 

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